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Zimbabwe: Khami World Heritage Site

Khami was once the capital of the Kingdom of Butwa of the Torwa dynasty. It is now a national monument and UNESCO World Heritage site

One of the things I wanted to do whilst we were around Bulawayo was to visit the Khami World Heritage Site, a set of ruins from around 1200 AD that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. We set out in search of the ruins, using a combination of the Garmin GPS I’d brought on the trip and Google Maps on Karen’s phone – but neither proved to be great – and the signage to ruins was also horrible. Somehow, we did make it finally. The good thing about the difficulty getting here was that no one else apart from some locals could find it so we virtually had the place to ourselves. We popped into the small visitors’ centre only to find the main man was in lunch and the person he had left in charge did not have a clue about the history of the site. So, we headed out to explore for ourselves.

The ruins themselves were interesting. They were made-up of bricks, which is not too impressive, but the bricks had been laid in patterns which were visually impressive.

Khami is dominated by a series of terraced stone ruins, often highly decorated.

The largest comprises of the three, tiered platforms that were the home of the King and his family. The imposing front façade marked the main entrance.We climbed to the top of the King’s Residence which had some great views across the valleys. This area of Zimbabwe is quite hilly, which was a nice change as we had not seen much in the way of hills or mountains since Uganda several weeks before (apart from the occasional stand-alone dormant volcano in Kenya and Tanzania). There were some interesting rock formations, which were a precursor to what we were likely to see in Matobo National Park over the coming days.

The stone terraced platform of the King's Residence at Khami World Heritage Site - Zimbabwe
The stone terraced platform of the King's Residence at Khami World Heritage Site
Standing atop of the King's Residence - Khami World Heritage SIte
Standing atop of the King's Residenc
One of the structures with the King's Residence - Khami World Heritage Site, Zimbabwe
One of the structures with the King's Residence

Close to the King’s Residence is another platform referred to as the Cross Platform, which has evidence of at least three large Dhaka houses.

It is, however, best known for the Dominican Cross made from loose blocks of granite, the origin of which is debated.

The Dominican Cross at Kharmi World Heritage Site - Zimbabwe
The Dominican Cross at Kharmi World Heritage Site

From the main ruins we took another trail that would lead us to the reservoir, where there would be some more ruins. The trail was a little over a kilometre through some pretty woodlands. Along the way we met a young man with his son. They seemed very keen to have their photos taken with us – so we obliged. Eventually, we reached the reservoir and the ruins. This was a beautiful place, although in the time these buildings were built there would have been on lake – just a river.

The man-made lake at the Khami World Heritage Site - Bulawayo, Zimbabwe
The man-made lake at the Khami World Heritage Site

After visiting the various locations around the Khami World Heritage Site, before leaving, we stopped off at the visitor centre to have a look around. There were several display panels and models to demonstrate how the building would have looked in its heyday. We were also able to learn more about the society and its relation to those who built Great Zimbabwe in Masvingo Province (which we didn’t have time to visit on this tour).

The visitor centre had some interesting displays on the history of the site - Khami World Heritage Site
The visitor centre had some interesting displays on the history of the site
The visitor centre at Khami Workd Heritage Site, Bukawayo, Zimbabwe
The models showing the structures that would have existed at the Khami site - Khami World Heritage Site, Bulawayo, Zimbabwe

About the Khami World Heritage Site

Khami World Heritage Site, formerly known as Khami Ruins, is an extensive complex of stonewalled sites that lies just west of Bulawayo.

The southern western portion of the Zimbabwe, north-eastern Botswana and northern South Africa were once controlled by one of the early Shona States, known as the Torwa State.

This state dominated the area from the 10th-19th Centuries AD. The settlement at Khami was the capital from the 15th-17th Century before it was abandoned for sites to the northeast around the modern site of Gweru.

Khami’s significance in the history of the area was fully recognised when it was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1986. A small site museum provides useful background information to the site itself.

Importance and History of Khami Ruins
The area around Khami has had a long history of human occupation. Large pear-shaped tools from the Early Stone Age can be found, but more common are the smaller tools left behind by Middle Stone Age as well as the arrow tips left from the Late Stone Age.

About 2000 years ago a new way of life emerged with semi-permanent settlements based around farming.

From AD1000-1300 there was the emergence of some of the key institutions of state: kingship, urban settlement, craft specialisation and centralised control over resources and trade.

During the period of AD 1300-1500 in Great Zimbabwe the art of dry stonewalling was mastered and the leaders were considered to have been extremely powerful and ruled over considerable distances.

Khami rose into significance from AD1450-1683 and its influence extended deep into the Kalahari of Botswana. Khami’s highly decorated stonewall structures are modified from those at Great Zimbabwe and are rather terraced hill faces forming an extensive complex of stonewalled platforms.

Torwa’s wealth in cattle and their success in regional and international trade were the envy of others. This ultimately led to their invasion by the Rozwi sometime before 1683.

They did not however dismantle the settlement but instead built on it, in some cases building even grander settlements.

In the 1830s successive invasions of groups fleeing the Military campaigns of Mfecane in South Africa brought the Rozwi to a close.

The migrant Ndebele absorbed the local people and a new way of life became dominant; the art of dry stonewalling was lost and former settlements were abandoned and left to decay.

Although no longer an important social statement of power, Khami still remains an important spiritual site.

Planning your visit to the Khami

Khami lies beyond the western boundary of the City of Bulawayo, 22 Km from the city centre.

Directions to Khami World Heritage Site

  • Take 13th Ave out of town past the Railway Station.
  • Cross the major junction with Siye Pambile
  • Drive and continue straight.
  • About 20 km from town there is a dirt road pointing to the right.
  • Take the right-hand track at the School, proceeding along this track for 2kms to the site museum.
Phone:+263-29-2250 045
Hours:Open all year round 9 am – 5 pm
Fees:Adults: $10  Children: $5

Best time to visit Bulawayo

The best time to visit Bulawayo in Zimbabwe is from January through December. In this period you have a warm temperature and little precipitation. The highest average temperature in Bulawayo is 31°C in October and the lowest is 20°C in July..

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